MOSCOW Syria on Monday quickly welcomed a call from Russia, its close ally, to place Syrian chemical arsenals under international control, then destroy them to avert a U.S. strike, but did not offer a time frame or any other specifics.
The statement by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem appeared to mark the first official acknowledgement by Damascus that it possesses chemical weapons and reflected what appeared to be an attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to avoid the U.S. military attack.
But it remained to be seen whether the statement represented a genuine goodwill gesture by Syria or simply an attempt to buy time.
“Syria welcomes the Russian proposal out of concern for the lives of the Syrian people, the security of our country and because it believes in the wisdom of the Russian leadership that seeks to avert American aggression against our people,” al-Moallem said during a visit to Moscow, where he held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.
David Cameron backed down from asking lawmakers for immediate support today for possible U.K. military strikes on Syria after the Labour opposition demanded a delay until United Nations inspectors report on the alleged use of chemical weapons.
The premier had intended to call in a House of Commons debate starting at 2:30 p.m. in London for backing for a military response to what he says is clear evidence of a chemical-weapons attack near Damascus last week by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. He pledged instead last night to hold a further vote in Parliament before any action is taken.
Protesters block Whitehall outside Downing Street in London to campaign against international military intervention in the ongoing Syrian conflict, August 28, 2013. Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Aug. 28 (Bloomberg) — Andrew Green, a former U.K. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, talks about the prospects for military srikes on Syria by the U.S. and its allies. He speaks with Betty Liu on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop.” (Source: Bloomberg)
The debate is scheduled to last nearly eight hours before a vote after 10 p.m. in London. The government announced its change of heart 90 minutes after the opposition Labour Party tabled an amendment opposing any U.K. military action before the inspectors, who are now on the ground in Syria, make their report. Some in the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are wary of supporting attacks, raising the prospect that Cameron might have been defeated.
“We are ensuring the House of Commons has the final say before any direct British involvement — one vote tomorrow, and another one if and when we are asked to participate directly,” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said in an e-mail to members of his Liberal Democrat party last night. “Any case for international action must be taken to the UN in an effort to achieve as great an international consensus as possible.”
As Western powers pressed the Syrian authorities to permit United Nations inspectors to examine the site of a claimed poison gas attack outside Damascus, France said on Thursday that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed.
Survivors from what activists say was a chemical weapons attack at a mosque on Wednesday in the Duma neighborhood of Damascus. More Photos »
At the same time, Israel said its intelligence assessments pointed to the use of chemical weapons.
“According to our intelligence assessments there was use of chemical weapons,” the Israeli minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations, Yuval Steinitz, told Israel Radio, “and this of course was not for the first time.”
Mr. Steinitz did not specifically accuse the government of President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons on Wednesday, but in the past Israel has frequently accused pro-Assad forces of using weapons from its large stockpiles of such munitions.
t the outset of his term, the new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, will confront a thicket of national and international challenges.
Rouhani’s presidential term starts at a particularly challenging time; the Islamic Republic of Iran is facing an unprecedented level of regional and international isolation. One of the most crucial foreign policy objectives which will take precedence in Rouhani’s agenda is the Syrian conflict, which has now entered its third year.
The election result raises vital questions regarding whether Iran’s foreign policy towards Assad’s sect-based and police regime will be altered or whether Iranian-Syrian alliance will evolve into a new phase. Will the presidency of the centrist Rouhani influence Iran’s diplomatic ties with Damascus and its unconditional support for Assad? Will Tehran change its political, military, intelligence and advisory assistance to Syria’s state apparatuses, army, security forces, and Mukhabart?
Israel’s airstrikes into Syria come as Washington considers how to respond to indications that the Syrian regime may have used chemical weapons in its civil war.
Syria has condemned the Israeli airstrikes against targets around Damascus, saying the attacks aim “to give direct military support to terrorist groups” fighting the government.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry also said Sunday in a letter sent to the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council that the “Israeli aggression” killed and wounded several people and “caused widespread destruction.”
Syria’s government refers to rebels trying to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime as “terrorists.”
Earlier Sunday, Israel’s military moved two Iron Dome batteries as part of “ongoing situational assessments.”
The move came hours after Israel carried out what an intelligence official said was an airstrike in Damascus that attacked a shipment of Iranian-made missiles bound for Hezbollah.
The attack, the second in three days, signaled a sharp escalation of Israel’s involvement in Syria’s bloody civil war. Syrian state media reported that Israeli missiles struck a military and scientific research center near Damascus and caused casualties.
In Damascus, you can smell the scent of gunpowder that wafts in from shelling on the outskirts of the capital. You hear fighter jets buzzing above. Ambulance sirens wail throughout the day, and death notices are regularly plastered on city walls.
Damascus is not under direct bombardment, like many other places in Syria that have been ravaged by an uprising now two years old. But the war is creeping closer, and residents feel the heat.
On the government side, pressure continues to build and there’s a sense the regime is becoming more desperate as the rebels makes gains, particularly in the north of the country.
The rebels, meanwhile, have attacked Damascus with no apparent regard for civilians. Many rebels view Damascus residents as indifferent city folks who have not joined the uprising and have opted to quietly support, or at least tolerate, the Assad regime.
A policy officer at the European Union’s delegation in Syria was killed in a rocket attack on a Damascus suburb on Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Wednesday.
Ahmad Shihadeh was killed while giving humanitarian help to people in the suburb of Deraya, where he lived, Ashton said in a statement.
“I call again on all sides to take urgent steps to end the violence, which has led to the deaths of some 100,000 innocent citizens and over one million refugees seeking shelter in neighboring countries,” Ashton said.
The EU withdrew international staff from its office in Damascus last December because of the worsening violence in Syria, which has been torn by a two-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Local staff remained in Syria but are not going to the EU delegation, which is temporarily closed, an EU official said.
In recent weeks, the argument that a decisive Syrian rebel victory would not necessarily be a good thing has gained ground in U.S. foreign policy circles. A negotiated settlement between Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, the argument goes, would be preferable. Such an ending would have a better chance of stanching the violence and preventing outright sectarian war between the mostly Sunni rebels — hungry for revenge against the Alawites — and the rest of the country.
Yet after almost two years of bloodletting by the Syrian government, there is little chance that splitting the difference between the factions would end the conflict. Even worse, a negotiated outcome would perpetuate Assad’s favorite strategy — honed over decades — of using the threat of sectarian war to make his adversaries in the international community wary of getting involved. Instead, the end of the Assad regime should be decisive and complete.
Of course, there are those who disagree. For one, Glenn Robinson, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, has argued that the Syrian rebels, if they win, will seek revenge and embrace neither democracy nor liberalism. Arguing along the same lines, Madhav Joshi, a senior researcher at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and David Mason, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, have suggested that a decisive military victory in a civil war is dangerous. The victorious side, they say, is likely to try to exclude the other from government (and enforce that exclusion through its military dominance) rather than to try to co-opt the former rival’s supporters by including them
Analysts in Russia, one of Syria’s staunchest allies, say that as rebels try to encircle Damascus and cut off escape routes through Hama province to the coast, the mood in the palace is one of panic, evinced by erratic use of weapons: Scud missiles better used against an army than an insurgency, naval mines dropped from the air instead of laid at sea.
But even if Mr. Assad wanted to flee, it is unclear if the top generals would let him out alive, Russian analysts say, since they believe that if they lay down arms they — and their disproportionately Alawite families — will die in vengeance killings, and need him to rally troops.
“If he can fly out of Damascus,” Semyon A. Bagdasarov, a Middle East expert in Moscow, said — at this, he laughed dryly — “there is also the understanding of responsibility before the people. A person who has betrayed several million of those closest to him.”
Many Syrians still share Mr. Assad’s belief that he is protecting the Syrian state, which helps explain how he has held on this long. At a lavish lunch hosted by a Lebanese politician outside Beirut in September, prominent Syrian backers of Mr. Assad — Alawites, Sunnis and Christians — spoke of the president, over copious glasses of Johnnie Walker scotch, as the bulwark of a multicultural, modern Syria.
But one friend of Mr. Assad, stepping out of earshot of the others to speak frankly, said the president’s advisers are “hotheads” who tell him, “ ‘You are weak, you must be strong,’ ” adding, “They are advising him to strike more, with the planes, any way that you can think of.”
“They speak of the rebels like dogs, terrorists, Islamists, Wahhabis,” the friend said, using a term for adherents to a puritanical form of Islam. “This is why he will keep going to the end.”
The friend added that even though Mr. Assad sometimes speaks of dialogue, he mainly wants to be a hero fending off a foreign attack. “He is thinking of victory — only victory.”
With more than 40,000 people killed in Syria’s devastating war, and about three million people driven from their homes, Western and Arab leaders are grappling with one question: How and when does all this end? The answer, say some, might lie not in the horrific bloodshed but in a simpler factor: money. Economists say President Bashar Assad’s regime has effectively gone broke, and is running out of ways to raise revenues and keep most of its soldiers properly fed and paid. “The economy is the basis of everything,” says Samir Seifan, a prominent Syrian economist who fled last year. He spoke by phone from Dubai. “Without services, boots, money, you cannot do anything. If the government cannot finance the army, they [soldiers] will simply go away.”
That tipping point, in which the government faces all-out financial collapse, seems to be drawing near—between three to six months from now, according to the calculations of Seifan and others who have examined Syria’s finances. Already, Assad has abandoned about 40% of the country’s territory to rebel forces, withdrawing his troops from the ground while his jets continue aerial bombing, apparently because the army is too thinly stretched to defend both rural areas and the government-held pockets of Damascus and Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo. And while Assad appears still to have considerable resources in Damascus, the economic indicators suggest his country is in free-fall, and that he has little way to generate fresh cash—at least not without appeals to allies.